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North Korea looms large in Singapore, but China takes front billing

It was billed as the pre-summit summit. A gathering of regional defense chiefs in the very same city where the two le...

Posted: Jun 4, 2018 9:42 AM
Updated: Jun 4, 2018 9:42 AM

It was billed as the pre-summit summit. A gathering of regional defense chiefs in the very same city where the two leaders of the United States and North Korea are due to meet in a mere nine days' time.

But rather than offering a preview of next week's main event, issues surrounding North Korea took a backseat during this year's Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's foremost security forum.

Instead, it was the rise of China that proved to be the most important and repeatedly talked about subject among delegates in Singapore.

When the impending meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did arise, conversations often centered less on the specifics of the meeting's likely agenda and more on where the leaders might choose to stay.

Would Trump or Kim be staying in the same hotels attendees were staying in -- would they be eating from the same buffet breakfasts?

Among the city state's several major hotels, the Capella is widely rumored to have become the frontrunner to house President Donald Trump during his stay next week.

The sprawling, luxurious resort is located on Sentosa island in Singapore's south. Isolated, scenic and with plenty of space, the hotel appears well situated to host a world leader or a historic summit.

Hotel staff dodged questions regarding the summit when asked on Sunday. But the hotel's lobby was filled with conspicuously muscular men speaking American-accented English. At one point a conversation could be overheard as to where an x-ray machine might be placed.

Ordinary Singaporeans CNN spoke with expressed curiosity about the arrival of the two leaders, but seemed more concerned about whether the meeting might lead to traffic delays rather than its wider political implications.

Crisis, what crisis?

That the planned Trump-Kim summit did not suck the oxygen out of the security forum, which wrapped up Sunday, may seem surprising considering the type of crowd it attracts.

Attendees included senior officials from across Asia and Europe, most notably US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose opening address Friday set the tone of the summit with its focus on a "free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region."

That's not to say the subject of North Korea was not entirely absent from the summit's scheduled panel discussions. On Sunday, during a forum featuring defense ministers from South Korea, Japan and the US, the subject was a talking point, with Mattis himself suggesting the North will not be provided with sanctions relief until it has demonstrated "verifiable and irreversible" steps to denuclearization.

There was also a panel dedicated to the issue of denuclearization on Saturday.

However, for many of the government officials and experts at the forum, North Korea is something of a temporary headache, when compared to the much bigger issue of China and the disruption to what's known as the "rules-based order."

The term, which is used as short hand for the principles and norms that have shaped and define the international system since the end of World War II, could be heard repeatedly throughout the summit.

In Asia, the most tangible example of the threat to the "rules-based order" is in the South China Sea, a body of water contested by a handful of regions that China claims as its own.

Beijing has fortified and militarized artificial islands in the region, a tactic that analysts and China's adversaries claim is meant to bolster its claims over the waters surrounding the islands and intimidate neighbors.

"China's militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea includes the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers and, more recently, the landing of bomber aircraft at Woody island," Mattis said during his speech at the meeting Saturday.

"Despite China's claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapon systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion," said Mattis.

On Sunday, the French armed forces minister, Florence Parly, appeared to capture the mood of the summit, when she declared that "just because the floodlights are on Panmunjom right now doesn't mean that the South China Sea issue will go away," referencing the peace village in the heart of the Demilitarized Zone, between North and South Korea.

During her address, Parly announced plans to sail a French maritime task group, together with British helicopters and ships, "into certain areas" of the South China Sea.

The objective she said was to ensure that freedom of navigation was upheld in the waters.

"At some point a stern voice intrudes into the transponder and tells us to sail away from supposedly 'territorial waters'," said Parly, who didn't reference China by name. "But our commander then calmly replies that he will sail forth, because these, under international law, are indeed international waters."

Bigger issues at play

The South China Sea has long been a flash point between the US and China. In fact, Mattis touched on the issue during his keynote address at the same conference last year, calling China's actions in the region examples of "contempt for other nations interests" and in "blatant disregard for international law."

Many of the defense leaders at this year's summit said that while North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs are threats to the world, especially now that it has successfully tested intercontinental-range missiles, how China will wield its growing power is a much more longer-term problem.

A total of $3.37 trillion in trade passed through the South China Sea in 2016, while approximately 40% of global liquefied natural gas trade transited through the waters in 2017, according to estimates provided by the Council of Foreign Relations.

For many of the Southeast Asian and South Asian nations that attended the Singaporean forum, free and open access to the waterway is an economic necessity.

China therefore presents a more pressing issue to many of them -- it's a rising power that sits on many of their borders, threatening to upend the status quo.

Addressing the issue of the South China Sea on Saturday, Vietnam's minister of national defense, Gen. Ngo Xuan Lich, said that "under no circumstances, one could not make up excuses to militarilize by deploying weapons and military hardware on disputed areas or areas belong to another country."

Such an act suggested Ngo, "is a serious breach to the sovereignty of other countries (and) violates international laws."

Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana echoed the general's comments Sunday, telling reporters that China's military build-up may be used "to intimidate others in the area."

In Tokyo, which is in range of North Korea's short and medium range ballistic missiles, China's rise remains a bigger geopolitical question mark than the threat from Pyongyang, said Jonathan Berkshire Miller, an analyst who specializes in Japanese foreign policy at the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA).

"While tensions on the Korean Peninsula remain a real and important security challenge, these tensions also provide a convenient dividing wall masking head-on confrontation between China and the US alliance network," said Miller.

He said that once North Korea is removed from the situation, "strategic competition with China would come front and center."

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